The chief Executive of Clever Students Lets Henry Hutchins, speaks to BusinessLive and Business Editor of the Herald William Telford.

Plymouth’s Clever Student Lets is targeting a bigger share of a market that is expected to freeze.

The South West’s largest student accommodation provider is planning to grow in 2020 – even though it thinks student numbers will remain flat for the next three years.

Plymouth-based Clever Student Lets, which has a turnover of more than £15million, said it is using social media to target a larger slice of the student market.

The firm is also setting up an offshoot business to concentrate on private lettings to hedge against any fall in the student total.

The University of Plymouth made an annual loss of nearly £13million and axed 400 staff due to declining student numbers in 2019.

Higher education institutions around the UK have been battling a dip in student numbers, partly demographic and partly to do with the advent of higher tuition fees in 2012.

In 2018 it was reported that 20 UK universities had experienced a 10% drop in number of people studying since 2012.

And the number of young people aged between 18 and 20, in the UK, will continue to fall “significantly” in the next two years, the university said, with competition from other universities and even Brexit being seen as major factors.

Clever Student Lets (CSL) executive Henry Hutchins said: “I don’t see any growth (in student numbers) for the next three years.”

But he stressed that does not mean his firm will struggle and points to its innovative approach, for instance ditching deposits and fees and having inclusive rents, as being factors in its steady growth.

And he said the firm had been going through a “dramatic change” and said: “Students have changed, they don’t even read emails any more, everything is apps now.”

He said the firm was now concentrating on contacting potential student tenants via social media, and had grown its Instagram followers from 250 to 1,400 on just two weeks.

“We try to reply within three hours, but found we couldn’t even get back to people in two days,” Mr Hutchins said. “On one day we had 170 inquiries – we used to get that a week.”

CSL is now growing its staff, currently having 30 workers across two offices, with sales and marketing manager Felicity Shaw now specialising in marketing and experienced sales manager Rob Dixon starting with the firm in January 2020, after moving to the South West from London.

It is also progressing with setting up a company called Clever Eco Lets, to highlight an environmentally friendly message, and which will concentrate on letting accommodation to the non-student sector.

The new venture, which will be based in a new office in Plymouth, is targeting such people as graduates, key workers such as doctors and nurses, and migrant workers, particularly younger renters who can’t get on the housing ladder and have a “green” outlook.

“We are still looking for a new office,” Mr Hutchins said. “We have targeted a street.”

Mr Hutchins said the other interesting trend is that students are shying away from sharing large houses.

“They are more and more difficult to let,” he said. “Some landlords are converting houses into flats. We had a lot of empty big houses last year.”

CSL is already the largest student lettings firm in Plymouth, and thought to be the largest south of the M5 with 3,000 rooms under management.

It is also the largest single lettings office in the entire UK and in 2018 struck a deal which saw it gain control of the University of Plymouth Students Union’s (UPSU) property management operation.

The partnership, in effect a transfer, gave CSL access to all university students who are placed in digs by UPSU.

It all led to CSL receiving so many inquires it was difficult to cope with them all.

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